Interview mit Dorit Chrysler

Dorit Chrysler, die ihrer Heimatstadt Graz vor vielen Jahren den Rücken gekehrt hat, um in New York ihr Glück zu versuchen, verzaubert mit den Klängen ihres Theremins inzwischen weltweit die großen Konzerthallen. Die Musikerin im mica-Interview.

The title of the festival is “It´s never too late to have a happy childhood”. The inference is that Mozart has been not able to have a happy childhood, because his father sent him through Europe playing the piano, when he was a child. And he was the first who changed his economical dependence from the aristocracy.

Are we always trying to escape or come to grips with our childhood?

Dorit Chrysler: I think there is no way escaping our childhood, if we want to truly understand who we are. Unfortunately it can feel like stepping into a hornet’s nest sometimes.

Running away or towards our family?

Dorit Chrysler: It comes in all variations, I was running away for a long time and now I am eagerly returning…

What are your first vivid musical memories from your childhood?

Dorit Chrysler: Aside from singing in apple trees as soon as I could climb them, I remember distinctly seeing a close up of Gary Glitter’s platform shoe stomping to the distinct beat of “Wanna be in my gang” (“Leader of the Gang”) on Spotlight TV – I did not fully understand it at the time, but I think it changed my life!

Can we talk about your formal musical training? What did you study?

Dorit Chrysler: I studied musicology in the Vienna University but felt quite disappointed by its unkept promise to me, although I did get a lot out of singing in the opera in Graz from age 6 to 14: the vocal training, the drama of jumping around on stage singing Mozart and Bizet or standing in the dark with a fake hunchback, singing Alban Berg, or carrying papiermache “goldchunks” through Wagner’s “Rheingold”.
I also studied piano, flute and guitar.

But what was the “unkept promise” of your musical studies?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, musicology, it felt to me, is for musicologists only, a rather dry & somewhat sysyphean attempt trying to capture the wonders of music.

What was catalyst for you move to NYC?

Dorit Chrysler: The music that came from the States: Elvis, Motown, Blues and bands like Sonic Youth were decisive to move to the US and not the UK. When I arrived in New York City, during the last whispers of the thriving East Village music and art scene, things went so well I decided to stay.There was an incredible social and artistic freedom and a fertile environment to explore my ambitions.I had no connections when I arrived, but was immediately taken by how easy and smooth it was to make contact and befriend people. It felt as if I finally had found a world of like-minded people and I was thrilled!

You had the band, Halcion, where you sang and played guitar, which married hard rock with interesting chords and forms, as well as your passionate and personal lyrics.

Dorit Chrysler: Quite honestly, I never considered Halcion “hard rock”, even though we did sport heavy chords, but, as you said, there were many other components going on. We tried to be inventive, but it lacked a certain playfulness that I happily embrace now. It has been a great experience to work with American musicians, touring the country, and being part of the thriving Lower East Side music community.

How does that collaborative dynamic differ from being a solo performer and how has that informed what you pursue now?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, those are two completely different worlds, and one sprung from the other. At the end of Halcion I felt stifled by artistic compromise, a democratic band trying to please every member is a complex matter and the music started to suffer from it. On the other hand, to share and explore together is incredible, and I still embrace lots of collaborations, for they take me to places I usually would not go.
I must admit, once I overcame the fear, playing solo has been extremely liberating, and even if I am sometimes compromised, not being able to play all instruments simultaneously, having to use backing tracks on the laptop, it is an undiluted representation of artistic vision and feels great.

What led you to picking up the theremin?

Dorit Chrysler: My friend Lary 7 introduced me to the theremin at his house and, upon trying it for the first time, I instantly saw all the possibilities of this instrument. The quixotic tragicness of the instrument was charming, the autonomy of developing your own style, the tone variation from sweetness to harsh, the experimental and sonic aspect.and it’s direct, sensual and dramatic approach of being played without touching. I was simply blown away!

Were you still with Halcion when you started?

Dorit Chrysler: No, I already recorded my solo works, using analog equipment, when I stumbled across the theremin, and it proved to be the missing link.

Did you build that first theremin from a kit?

Dorit Chrysler: Yes, with the help of a little soldering iron and a little technical help from some friends.



What are the improvements on the one you play now?

Dorit Chrysler: The MoogEtherwave Pro is a professional concert theremin and it makes a huge difference in playing, but the Etherwave kit in the beginning was perfectly alright to start off with. Now, the volume antenna is so much more sensitive and allows real dynamics in playing, the Etherwave Pro also has a fine range of different tone settings plus the headphone feature, which allows me to practice in hotel rooms without torturing other guests. By the way, I am extremely proud to be endorsed by MOOG Inc, playing their products, especially as Bob Moog’s work is essential in keeping the theremin present.
I am still exploring the possibilities of the theremin. It is this, such a young instrument in comparison with string or drum devices and it might take another 100 years to find its true form. I am just one of many that are currently searching for its truest form.
In my work, I divide between songwriting, using the theremin as one of many complementary instruments, and then the work that concentrates exclusively on utilizing the theremin in all its possibilities.

And can you rock out on a theremin?

Dorit Chrysler: Hell, yeah.

We talked a bit about Mozart’s life as an activist. How do you see the artist’s role in the context of the turmoil in the world today?

Dorit Chrysler: Such torrid and corrupt times, and as a responsible human being you have to ask yourself, what is it I can contribute to improve? I do find it more important than ever to lead the autonomous life of an artist, having the courage to give up financial security to find true forms of expression, celebrating a freedom and independence devoid of corporate structures, hence setting and example and to inspire people to make up their own minds. Art is essential to the human spirit, especially in dark times such as these, and to take all risks doing what you love with great passion is an important philosophical and political statement.

As an Austrian is Mozart in your DNA it seems to be pervasive in their culture like Coca Cola and Wild Bill Hickok, on chocolates and key chains.
Does it start to feel kitsch or can you divorce yourself from the cultural omnipotence?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, I haven’t been living in Austria for more than 15 years, even though always returning happily, so I am not exposed to the tooth pulling tourist exploitation of Mozart on site. Personally, I associate Mozart with early childhood memories and his way of “stimmfuehrung” that I was exposed to when singing one of the three boys in the magic flute, it is absolutely magnificent and has been inspiring always.

Is there something about Mozart’s forms/harmony that you feel informs your work/all music?

Dorit Chrysler: Yes, as said before, especially when I am playing with harmonies, piling up to twenty voices on top of each other, I always feel that the joy of harmonizing has been derived from listening to Mozart at early age.

Does he inform the Austrian identity?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, such a sore topic. I always wonder, how he would feel about all of this. Ironically, what his music evokes, the lightness and playfulness, is not necessarily an Austrian’s attribute, and if we must generalize, I think the Austrians embody more the spirit of the Strauss brothers or Bruckner, reflecting maybe the harsh climate, monarchic and catholic hierarchal structures… Maybe that’s why we are so drawn to Amadeus… because he symbolizes a lightness that we all wish we could have. And let us not forget that ironically Mozart, being the free, nonconformist spirit he was, had to embrace quite some struggle during his lifetime to make ends meet.

How did it come about that you spent so much time performing in Eastern Europe?

Dorit Chrysler: I wanted to play the Tesla museum in Belgrade right next to his ashes!
After all those years in the heart of capitalism, I was drawn like a magnet to places the have not had this impact. And I truly found what I was looking for and more, incredible artists and musicians, independent and self functional, creative, and able to make so much out of few resources – it also reminded me of the eighties East Village or old school rap in NY, when communal efforts, despite the complete lack of funding, sprouted strong ideas!

What impact has that left on you musically and emotionally?

Dorit Chrysler: I think it was a healthy exchange on both sides, some of these communities like Serbia are very isolated and operate on different terminologies like “orchestrated chaos” – a lot to be learned on both sides. I feel truly grateful for having met all these wonderful people, true friendships, and look forward to continue collaboration like for instance working on a soundtrack for a movie on Nikola Tesla.

Can you tell me about about the theremin community in general that seem to have contacted you in the wake of the Issue Project Room (a performance space in New York) shows?

Dorit Chrysler: When I co-founded the NY Theremin Society (with Suzanne Fiol), it was a big surprise to all of us that this series generated such a strong response, healthy exchange and big interest from the audience and theremin players alike.

Is there also a theremin community in Vienna and are they coming from a classical and academic tradition?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, there is Olga Neuwirth, a contemporary composer who uses the theremin sometimes, and thereminists from the Moscow theremin school have been brought to Austria several times. There are many theremin enthusiasts, hopefully strengthening the theremin community. This summer I founded the European Theremin Association Verein, to create another platform for events and exchange. But a classical and academic tradition of the theremin does not exist in Austria or anywhere else – just yet!

This concert taking place in the Vienna Konzerthaus with 3 thereminists, performing experimental, contemporary electronic and classical music pieces, is unique, for it finally returns the theremin, this often belittled obscure instrument into a respected environment and with players like Armen Ra and Pamelia Kurstin with will be truly representative of its importance in the musical world. I found a program from the early twenties, where two theremins and a piano were giving a recital in the very same halls!



You seem to centre a community of theremin players. It seems many people have different approaches to playing it?

Dorit Chrysler: Yes, that makes it so exciting, when we assembled all these players, not one was doing the same as the other.
From triggering samples to working with its feedback, paying tribute to the classical music, playing the theremin like a violin, or diving into soundscapes, using effects and loops of unique quality because of the unusual way of being triggered by hand motion.

And are all the finest thereminists really women?

Dorit Chrysler: Hm, there are as many men as woman playing the instrument, so I refrain from making this statement. More women tend towards the classical approach, maybe…but then, what about Armen Ra and Rob Schwimmer?

You recently played at the huge Roskilde festival. How did you find playing Roskilde? Can you adapt too many playing environs? Are you comfortable on stage?

Dorit Chrysler: Very comfortable on stage, even though it was a rather big for one’s been this a very important experience, to be part of such a big and commercial festival with an obscure onewoman act featuring the theremin, when, in other tents, acts like Bob Dylan and The Strokes are playing away. And it totally worked, too, all the records were sold afterwards, and the crowd was open to this unusual act. One of the great aspects of playing the theremin are its many different angles, that allow me to perform at rock, festivals, museums, experimental venues like Vilkingen in Stockholm, on roofs, in churches, synagogues, concert halls, rock clubs,etc. This year my work was also part of Gallery art installations, movie soundtracks and dance productions. A true challenge to prevail in all those different realms!

You did some shows with Gibby Haynes, formerly of the psychedelic Texas group Butthole Surfers. Is that all improvised?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, we actually spend quite some time on rehearsals and I did try to bring in some structure, but at the end of the day, Gibby was completely unpredictable and just dragged me along on his wild soundscapes, I mean, what else would you expect? We will definitely be doing this again

And some of your other recent collaborators, such as Herr Roedelius?

Dorit Chrysler: We finally played together in Tirana, Albania, this year, it was beautiful and his new record, a collection of his works from 1965 to 2005 is really beautiful. We’ve been talking about joint recordings forever and I do have some material to work with.Let me just say, he is inspiring.

Gordon Raphael (producer of The Strokes, among others)?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, Gordon is a dear friend of mine, and he collects eclectic old synths, so when we improvised on a fine morning in Berlin, it was quite magical because we felt so comfortable with each other. These days he’s just hard to catch with his rock-star-producer-status, jetting between London and Berlin.
At this point I would also like to point out some recent female collaborators: I truly enjoyed working with Electric Indigo, and we will be releasing a song together on the next Chicks on Speed compilation, also, I am currently preparing for a concert on September 1st playing with the wonderful Lene Lovich at the Knitting Factory.Furthermore, some of my favorite musical collaborators are Mr. Lary 7, FON and, especially YOU! (Here Ms Chrysler is referring to your humble reporter)

How is the community dynamic different in NYC?

Dorit Chrysler: I could write a novel about that one, but let me merely state, that I do think that there are distinct differences – the working conditions as a musician are not comparable to Austria, hence it spawns different dynamics. I’d wish for more live playing possibilities of musicians trying to explore and experiment all over Austria, a school teaching flexibility and the terrors of judgementalness to create even more fertile ground for new generations of musical explorers.

Any plans for the return of opera/yodelling in future recordings or compositions?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, I think the yodeling can definitely wait, and a theremin opera is something the world truly needs, so let’s see about that one.

Expressiveness thru the ether. Is it a conduit for turmoil and anguish does it ever play itself?

Dorit Chrysler: It is a conduit for that and all else. On some days it feels like it plays itself or it plays you, it is as intimate as your own voice which reflects all your moods and colors. Terrifying and almost impossible to tame, hence the attraction!

What about transposing the ether playing onto other motion triggered instruments and video?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, it’s been done and is certainly an exciting direction, I just spoke to a female video artist the other day working with this technique, and the terpsitone (theremin created this one for dancers) would find a lot of interest, I am sure! Who knows if any of those still exist??

I’d like to talk about the ideas behind some of the songs in you repertoire and on your recordings.
Can you comment on the background to some of these songs…

Dorit Chrysler: Tesla   Electricity – Brilliant mind, Serbia-Graz-New York.
Tundra   It was a gift for valentine’s day – I was in love!
On the meadow  Early teen memories, playing soccer with boys on the meadow, in subconscious search for physical contact.
Snow  Well, there is lots of madness in this harmless sounding caper, the inability to accept the end of a relationship and immense loneliness.
Spring Breeze  Layers of voices, hopefulness. I see the image of the guitarist playing the chords in his underwear.
My sweet chimera   Addressing your own little devils, kobolds and chimeras.
The Ostrich effect   The ultimate break up song.

You first release came in an elaborate cardboard box, and the second married three formats…CD, vinyl and MP3.
They are seductive archival objects. Can we talk about the packaging on your records, they are unusually formatted. Is this a reaction to downloading?

Dorit Chrysler: Who conceived of these ideas? All credit goes to Mr. Alexander de Goederen from PlagDichNicht (the label) and at this point I’d also like to thank the visionary Wolfgang Kopper. To counteract the fast moving access to low quality files, it makes only sense to put lots of care in extraordinary packaging to make a product worth acquiring. The marrying of three different sound formats also reflects the struggle and status of the theremin being the oldest electronic instrument, yet as contemporary as can be when used the right way!

How sensitive is your instrument aberrations in tuning and hearing yourself?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, as sensitive as can be. If I can not hear myself in the monitor, I can not play, in retrospect it is a miracle to me, thanks to able sound men & woman all over the world that all the concerts worked out the way they did. In the thirties an additional problem of playing the theremin was the fickleness of the tubes, responding to humidity and such, now with transistors, no such problem, and only when playing outside, strong wind can sometimes influence your magnetic field in unexpected ways!

What are some of the practical problems associated with playing an instrument with radio frequencies … what are some of the mishaps you have encountered?

Dorit Chrysler: Well, in addition to strong wind, as I mentioned before, the main problem is the ring modulation occurring when you have several theremins playing simultaneously.(from the proximity of the instruments to each other) This is a very challenging undertaking and at the NY theremin society we had 9 thereminists at the time playing together…aside from the  discipline of each individual to not dive into mad cacophony, finding the right positions without having the instruments influencing each other’s sound was very difficult!
Just to have three thereminists playing together can prove tricky. When we did this at the Issue Project Room, the only position working was when all three of us were standing to the back of the audience. Now let’s hope we can avoid such technically induced rudeness at the Mozartsaal on September 9th!

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